Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
The Secretary of State was asked—
Tourism Sector: Covid-19 Support
Covid-19 has had a severe impact on tourism, which is why we have provided a range of targeted measures to see the sector through this period. On top of the Government’s wider economic support package, we have provided business rates relief and grants for many in the sector, as well as a cut in VAT for tourism and hospitality activities until the end of March. We are continuing to engage with stakeholders to assess how we can most effectively support tourism’s recovery across the UK.
Harrogate and Knaresborough is in the top 10% of UK constituencies for hospitality employment. That includes a significant number of teams at B&Bs and guest houses, which are suffering from a lack of international visitors and the closure of the exhibition sector. There is a market that could be developed further to help, and that is domestic tourism. As we emerge from the pandemic and lockdown finishes, what will the Government do to promote domestic tourism?
I know my hon. Friend’s passion for tourism and representing his fantastic constituency. As he knows, we currently need people to stay at home to reduce transmission and to ease the pressure on our NHS, but when holidays are permitted again, we will work with VisitBritain, VisitEngland and local partners, including destination management organisations, to champion the UK’s diverse tourism offer, as we did with the Enjoy Summer Safely and Escape the Everyday campaigns. We will continue to work with the industry to provide guidance and assurance about when people can safely go on holiday, as demonstrated through initiatives such as the “We’re good to go” industry standard mark.
I appreciate that my hon. Friend is a great advocate for tourism, particularly in her constituency. I am fully aware of how tough the new measures will be for the tourism sector, with businesses having already faced many months of reduced trade. There are significant packages of financial support in place, as the furlough scheme and self-employed support have been extended for the period of lockdown. Many businesses in the hospitality and tourism sector will also receive grants worth up to £3,000 per month under the local restrictions support grant scheme. An additional £1.1 billion is being given to local authorities to help businesses more broadly, such as those severely impacted by restrictions but not actually forced to close.
Loneliness: Winter 2020-21
As winter approaches, loneliness will be a concern for many people. That is why the Government, as part of our £750-million charity funding package, have put £18 million into charities that tackle loneliness and provide much-needed support, including through online social groups, virtual buddying, telephone helplines and other activities. That is on top of £44 million going towards mental health as part of the same package.
As we enter the latest lockdown, many people will be isolated in their homes. Age UK estimates that 2 million over-75s live alone. Research by the Library has revealed that more than 3,000 households in my constituency may lose access to their free TV licence. What impact assessment has the Minister made of removing funding for the free over-75s TV licence?
National League Football: Covid-19 Support
Our football clubs are the bedrock of their local communities, and it is vital that they are protected from covid-19. Many have benefited from the unprecedented multibillion-pound package of support that we have provided to all businesses across the United Kingdom. In addition, we have brokered a unique £10-million deal with the national lottery so that 66 clubs in the top two levels of the national league can continue to play behind closed doors.
Of course, this is not just about the national league. I am proud to represent two fantastic football clubs, Tipton Town and Tividale, which are at real risk of closure as a result of covid-19. Can my right hon. Friend reassure my clubs that the Government will do whatever they can to support them? Perhaps once he can, he might even come and meet the clubs to see the fantastic work that they do in the community.
I would be delighted to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency when that is permitted. Of course, I am immensely disappointed by the current situation and the position that we are in, but I know that football clubs large and small make a huge contribution to their community on and off the pitch, and I can assure my hon. Friend that they will not be forgotten. As soon as we are in a position to start lifting restrictions, grassroots sports will be among the first to return, but until then, we have made sure that families can keep exercising throughout this lockdown, and I urge people to get out and get fit.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Today, the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee has called before it the English Football League, the Premier League and the Football Association. We want to hear what they are doing in terms of community sport and, crucially, to see whether they can sort out the situation for 10, 12 or 15-year EFL football clubs that are potentially going under and ripping the heart out of our communities, as happened in Bury last year. Will the Minister join me in urging the football bodies to follow the example of other sports and finally put the squabbling aside and come to a proper deal for the good of the game?
I agree with my hon. Friend 100%. I am very disappointed by the current situation and the inability of football to reach that agreement. There is already £50 million on the table for league 1 and league 2 clubs to stop them falling into financial difficulty, which is a good start, and further discussions are taking place. Indeed, the Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) met the Premier League and the EFL again this week to reiterate the need to reach an agreement in the interests of all fans.
Swimming Pools and Gyms: Covid-19 Closure
Sport and physical activity are incredibly important for our physical and mental health, as well as a vital weapon against coronavirus. That is why we made sure that people could exercise even during the height of the previous lockdown, and we opened up grassroots sport and leisure facilities as soon as it was safe to do so. From today, there are significant restrictions on some sectors of the economy, including the closure of indoor and outdoor leisure. Exercise outdoors, however, will be allowed with our own households, on our own or with one person from another household, which is different from last time. Of course, no Government or Minister wants to see these kinds of restrictions in place, but we believe they are necessary to help to get the R number down and to get the virus under control.
Initiatives such as “Healthier Fleetwood” show that people in the town I represent take seriously the poorer health outcomes that we have in the town and are serious about making a difference, but our swimming pool has been closed since the beginning of the first lockdown and was not reopened when restrictions allowed it to be. Wyre Borough Council and the YMCA, who run it, keep telling me that they are concerned about the level of footfall not being financially viable to reopen the pool. What conversations has the Minister had with Treasury colleagues about financial support for swimming pools in areas of deprivation?
I completely understand the challenges facing many leisure facilities right across the country. Some of them have been able to open, but some have not. Some are open, but we are aware that they are in a precarious financial state. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is working closely with Sport England and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government on the design of a £100 million scheme to help leisure centres and leisure facilities. Further details of this will be released shortly, and once the fund is open, we urge leisure centres to bid for the money and urge people to make the most of these precious facilities.
I want to ask the Minister about the broader issue. Many people in this country wanted the lockdown to come sooner than it has, and perhaps the most compelling cases I have heard come from those who work in the NHS, but those same people know that the NHS cannot by itself make our country fully well. That requires us all to live healthier lives. So while we live through the frustration of closed gyms and swimming pools that have been shut since March, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) has described, will the Minister explain what exactly he has done to write a plan for our country’s wellbeing, starting with explaining, now, precisely what is going to happen on 2 December?
Of course, through Sport England and other bodies, we have provided financial support to the tune of more than £200 million to help facilities during the coronavirus crisis, as well as having a clear plan to open both elite level sport and grassroots sport. Our intention is very much to get back to opening as many sports facilities as possible, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State outlined a few moments ago. None of us wants these measures in place, but we have pressed the pause button. Everybody can make an individual case for a particular sport, but the problem is that if we take individual parts away, the whole thing falls down. We are asking everybody, unfortunately, for this temporary period to make sacrifices and not do some of the things they would love to do, to help to get the virus under control.
Charity Sector: Covid-19 Support
Nobody works harder for their constituency than my hon. Friend, and I know she welcomes the fact that the Government have funded 13,000 charities, social enterprises and other community organisations, including St John Ambulance, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, FareShare and a host of others. That includes £45,000 going to charities in the Hyndburn constituency.
Despite the suffering caused by the coronavirus, it remains the case that funds are lying unused in dormant accounts. Will my hon. Friend join me in welcoming the continued funding his Department has secured from identifying and putting to good use the money left in dormant accounts?
The dormant assets scheme is a great success; it has unlocked more than £745 million for social and environmental causes in the UK to date, including £150 million released in May to support charities, communities and individuals affected by the pandemic. Work is also under way to expand the scheme to a wider range of assets and enable hundreds of millions of pounds more of forgotten money to be put to good use.
On Monday, the Prime Minister said he would be
“doing much more over the winter to support the voluntary sector”.—[Official Report, 2 November 2020; Vol. 683, c. 41.]
The sector provides vital support and services to people across our communities. It already has an accumulation of a £10 billion deficit over just six months, because of the loss of fundraising, and 10% of organisations are due to fold, so can the Minister say exactly how he and the Prime Minister are going to rescue our charities and address that deficit, and what further money will be forthcoming, as charities are never more needed and never more in need?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to say that charities have performed an immensely valuable role, and they will continue to be more important than ever. I would point her to the £750 million package, and she will know that the Chancellor will be making a statement later on, which I am sure will not be the last one he will be making over the course of this pandemic.
This Government are aiming as high as we can on the delivery of better broadband across this country. We have spent £1.9 billion on the superfast programme, taking more than 96% of UK premises to superfast connectivity. As part of our plans for nationwide coverage, we are also committed to investing £5 billion to delivering gigabit-capable broadband to those in the hardest-to-reach areas.
I thank the Minister for that answer. In my constituency, rural constituents seeking to use the universal service obligation to obtain better broadband speeds are increasingly flabbergasted at the costs coming from BT, which seeks to offer fibre to the premises when fibre to the cabinet is sufficient to meet legislative requirements. Will he use his position to stress to BT that it should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good?
As I say, this Government will always aim for the gold standard on connecting people, but because my hon. Friend understands the value of connectivity to his constituents, he is absolutely right; on the USO, we need not only to wait for the outcome of Ofcom’s investigation of BT’s current approach, but to make sure that the perfect is not the enemy of the good.
Entertainment Venues: Covid-19 Support
We are continually engaging with the entertainment sector about the ongoing challenges to venues up and down the country. Our unprecedented £1.57 billion cultural recovery fund is helping to preserve the cultural fabric of the country, from museums to music venues, from cinemas to theatres.
Pavilions, a performing arts venue in Teignmouth, in my constituency, did not apply for the original round of funding from the cultural recovery fund, as at that time it was in an acceptable financial position, and that was very responsible of it. Unfortunately, a huge decline in business is now affecting it, so will the Minister consider a new round of funding for the arts and entertainment industry that Pavilions might apply for?
My hon. Friend is right to bring this issue to our attention. We understand that this remains a challenging period for many organisations in the arts and entertainments sector. Some £258 million of the cultural recovery fund has been held back with a view to offering further support based on evidenced need later in the financial year. Meanwhile, organisations can, of course, take advantage of the financial support measures that were made available by the Government and recently extended, including the various business grant and loan schemes, and the furlough scheme.
Public Singing: Covid-19
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has engaged extensively with Public Health England to provide clear guidance on singing. The development of the guidance enabled both professional and non-professional activity to take place in a covid-secure manner in a range of settings and contexts over recent months. However, in line with new restrictions coming into force today, amateur activity can no longer take place.
I am sure that, like me, Mr Speaker, you are holding your breath until the day that we can both enjoy my right hon. Friend’s impressive falsetto once again, but in the meantime I am pleased to confirm that performing arts professionals may continue to rehearse, train and perform for broadcast, recording or livestream purposes. Of course, the intention after this four-week period is for an easement of restrictions back into the tiered system that previously operated throughout the country, in which case my right hon. Friend will be able to be in fine tune, to all our great delight, once more.
Creative Freelancers: Income Support Scheme
Our world-beating cultural and creative industries are absolutely nothing without the people who work in them. We are working hard to help freelancers in those sectors to access support, particularly if they do not qualify for the self-employed income support scheme. Arts Council England has made available £119 million to individuals, of which £23 million has already been distributed. Around £96 million is currently still available to apply for.
The hon. Lady will know that the £1.57 billion cultural recovery fund will benefit freelancers because it enables the assisting of organisations to reopen and restart performances, perhaps in a digital or livestream capacity. It will help many organisations to put on cultural activity in this financial year, which they would not otherwise have been able to do. I am sure the hon. Lady will be delighted that in her own constituency of Hornsey and Wood Green, for example, the recovery funding has enabled the sharing out of more than £571,000 between six organisations. I am sure it will be a lifeline for many of them.
I thank the Minister for her answer, but the reality is that the number of performances will be a fraction of what it would normally be. I have been contacted by constituents who are performers, make-up artists, instrumentalists and other freelancers in the creative sector who work in the west end; they have been excluded from all Government support. In west London, universal credit barely covers or fails to cover even the cost of rents, meaning that people now face going through lockdown with no additional support, adding to the queues at food banks. What will the Minister do to help them?
The hon. Lady is right to highlight the plight of freelancers, without whom, of course, our cultural institutions are simply bricks and mortar. We know that what they want to do more than anything is to get back to doing what they love, which is why I am so delighted that nearly 1,400 of the successful culture recovery fund recipients announced on 12 October set out in their applications how the support would enable them to deliver more than £150 million-worth of cultural activity before the end of March 2021, which they would not otherwise have been able to do. As the hon. Lady will know, well over half a million pounds of that money is being spent in her constituency.
No one is disagreeing with the Minister that additional money has been put into the arts and culture sector. That amount of money is always welcome, but the Minister must understand that the reality is that there are growing numbers of freelancers, musicians and performance artists who are excluded from getting any support from Government and are not benefiting from the individual grants to cultural centres in any part of the UK. There are growing numbers of organisations calling for more support specifically for musicians, whether it is ExcludedUK, the Incorporated Society of Musicians or the Musicians’ Movement. What is the Minister or, indeed, the Secretary of State doing to lobby Treasury Ministers to ask them to change their mind to ensure that these freelancers get support so that we have some sort of cultural society left after the pandemic is over?
As I have already articulated, there is £119 million-worth of Arts Council England funding for which freelancers can bid, and I am sure that the Welsh Government are doing something similar with their share of the cultural recovery fund. It is also all about protecting opportunities for freelancers. Even in the latest restrictions that come into force today, we have ensured that there are exemptions for professional music, recording studios, film and TV production and live stream and digital performances. It is all about enabling those opportunities for people to keep doing the jobs that they love and that they are so brilliant at.
The hard-hit creative industries face not only the challenge of covid, but the looming threat of Brexit. The live music industry contributes more than £1 billion annually to the economy. EU nationals, are, of course, a vital part of this picture, with 750,000 music tourists visiting the UK. Barriers to travel—inevitable after Brexit—could lead to many of them going elsewhere in Europe. Brexit is not only a problem for those attending festivals from the EU, but a threat to those who perform at or work for festivals. There is endless red tape in the form of ATA carnets and the necessity for individual work visas. The Government are yet to come up with a viable solution to any of these problems. Given that, does the Minister accept that disruption to the ability of essential EU industry professionals and European visitors coming to the UK will harm this sector and damage the economy at a time when its success could not be more important?
No, I do not accept that. My Department has been regularly engaging with a range of creative industries, including the live music and cultural sectors, to make sure that the support is put in place for businesses, freelancers, visitors and the creative and artistic economy as we move towards the transition period.
Rugby League Clubs: Financial Support
I know just how precious rugby league clubs are to their local communities—and, indeed, to you, Mr Speaker, as you never tire of reminding me, quite rightly—and to Hull, which is blessed with two Super League clubs and will be hosting next year’s Rugby League world cup. That is why rugby league was the first to benefit from Government support with a £16 million emergency loan. That money is going out the door now, and I continue to work with the Treasury on what can be done to provide further support to the sports sector.
May I offer you, Mr Speaker, belated congratulations on having been elected Speaker one year ago yesterday? I pay tribute to you for the work that you have always done to promote rugby league at all levels.
I am very grateful to the Sports Minister for his helpful engagement with me about rugby league, but it is very unlikely that fans will be back in stadiums for some time, so can the Secretary of State offer more financial support to ensure that we do not lose clubs, such as Hull Kingston Rovers and Hull FC, both of which are incredibly important to our city?
I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman’s analysis, which is why the Sports Minister and I are working tirelessly with the Treasury. We wanted to get fans back in stadiums from 1 October. No one wanted that more than the Prime Minister, myself and the Sports Minister, but it was not possible. We know that we need to provide support to those sports that were looking to rely upon fans and we are engaging very closely with the Treasury on that.
Advertising Ban: Fat, Sugar and Salt
The Government published an impact assessment alongside the 2019 consultation on HFSS advertising that considered both the health benefits and the costs. We will publish the Government’s response to that consultation by the end of this year, and hold a short consultation as soon as possible on a total ban for advertising online.
No one would question the Government’s wish to reduce childhood obesity, but influencing this is a hugely complicated task that the Government should take time over. The proposal to restrict advertising products that are high in fat, salt and sugar brings the risk of displacement. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that any ban will not come into force until all factors have been properly considered, and that any strategy regime will hold online platforms to the same restrictions as broadcasters, along with similar sanctions?
My right hon. Friend himself is an advertisement for the benefits of healthy living, and he is absolutely right to draw attention to the risk that, by imposing measures in one area, one may simply displace advertising into another. That is why the Government have been absolutely plain that restrictions on post-watershed advertising on broadcasting will come into effect at the same time as a ban on HFSS advertising online.
I know that the restrictions introduced in England from today are causing huge anxiety for many sectors covered by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, which continue to be some of the hardest hit by covid. Of course, these restrictions will not continue a day longer than is necessary, and we have worked closely to ensure that covid-secure venues are able to remain open where work is taking place. Unlike in March, elite sport including football, as well as theatres, and film and TV production, will all continue behind closed doors. I also know, though, that the new restrictions will badly affect jobs and businesses, which is why we have extended our multi-billion pound furlough scheme and increased support for the self-employed. In addition, over £500 million has already been allocated from the cultural recovery fund, and we are working to finalise the sports package with the Treasury.
Without the safety net of league-wide sponsorship and TV broadcast deals to fall back on, second tier rugby clubs will not make it through the pandemic without financial assistance. Will the Secretary of State commit to a £1 million support package to ensure that Bedford Blues—a cherished and viable small and medium-sized enterprise with an attached charity at the heart of our community—survive the season?
I share my hon. Friend’s desire for that to happen, and I know what a champion of Wicksteed Park he is. As he will know, the park received almost £250,000 from the heritage emergency fund in June and almost £250,000 from the culture recovery fund in October; that was on top of other awards totalling £2.7 million over the past couple of years.
Does the Secretary of State have a plan for live music and other live performances reopening fully—stage 5 of the route map after 2 December? Will he give an indicative date to allow businesses to plan ahead and take the decisions they need to in order to allow our world-class creative professionals to get back to what they do best?
The hon. Lady raises a very important point. There are three main elements to it. First, I very much hope that socially distanced performances will be able to return once we are through this lockdown period. Secondly, we are providing support throughout the covid crisis through the culture recovery fund, and hundreds of millions of pounds have gone to that sector. Thirdly, I very much want to give that date for return. At the moment, I hope that the hon. Lady will appreciate that it is very difficult to give an accurate date, given the wider context. I want to be able to do that as soon as we can.
The Government knew on 21 September—nearly seven weeks ago—that a national lockdown was necessary to slow the spread of the virus, so why did the Secretary of State encourage cinemas, theatres, venues and other organisations to spend large sums of money on preparing, resourcing and marketing loss-making, reduced capacity productions, knowing that almost all of them would have to close for an extended period of time?
As the hon. Lady will know, we sought to have a regionally based approach, and that was working. Ultimately, though, we could not sustain it, so we had to have this period of lockdown. I am hopeful and confident that once that period of lockdown ends, those productions will be able to continue. I note that we have ensured that rehearsals for them can continue behind closed doors during this lockdown period, which was not the case previously.
I know that all those areas in my hon. Friend’s constituency struggle with coverage. That is why we agreed a £1 billion shared rural network deal with operators that will see them collectively increase mobile coverage throughout the United Kingdom to 95% by 2025. I am confident that her constituency will be a beneficiary of that.
I would be delighted to attend my right hon. Friend’s all-party group. Heritage is often an overlooked part of our cultural sector. That is why I am delighted that we have been able to support over 150 museums up and down the country as part of the culture recovery fund. That includes, in his own area, Bristol’s iconic SS Great Britain getting £900,000, and more than £500,000 for the aerospace museum in Filton.
I understand the many challenges faced by freelancers and I hear about this every day in my capacity as Culture Secretary. Across the economy, 66% of freelancers can benefit from the Treasury scheme, which has been increased again by the Chancellor. In addition, as the hon. Gentleman knows, as a result of Barnett consequentials and the culture recovery fund, there are opportunities for almost £100 million to be spent on this by the Scottish Government.
As my hon. Friend will know, it is a cause of great regret to me, and indeed to the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, that these restrictions had to be imposed. Put simply, they are necessary to help to control the virus, which thrives on social interaction. However, I can assure him that I am working closely with other Ministers across Government to ensure that those places will be at the front of the queue to return when the restrictions expire.
Brexit and covid are proving to be a devastating double whammy for the creative sector, including iconic events like the Edinburgh Festival and Celtic Connections, and the artists in my constituency who perform in them. They are crying out for certainty and support. What discussions is the Secretary of State having with organisations like the Musicians Union about their proposals for a creative passport for post-Brexit travel that would help to provide some of that certainty?
As we leave the European Union and leave the transition period, we are looking at what we can do with replacement funds from EU funding to ensure they benefit the whole of the United Kingdom, and those discussions are going on with the Treasury. In addition, we are having the festival of the United Kingdom in 2022. That is £120 million, more than £10 million of which will go to Scotland.
I recently met Luton’s Unite retired members, who expressed their deep concern over the Government’s removal of the TV licence concession for the over-75s. The covid pandemic has shown how important TV can be for the elderly, not just as a source of news and entertainment, but also companionship, especially for the 40% of over-75s who live alone. What conversations has the Secretary of State had with the Department of Health and Social Care regarding the impact of the removal of the TV licence on the mental health of the over-75s?
As the Minister for Media and Data, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) and I have made repeatedly clear from this Dispatch Box, we did not want the BBC to do this. I welcome the fact that at least the most vulnerable are covered and will continue to get support.
The Attorney General was asked—
Legal Profession: Government Criticism
I speak regularly with Cabinet colleagues, including the Home Secretary, and I am in no doubt whatever that this Government are rightly proud of the UK’s legal tradition and our legal profession. We benefit enormously from the contribution of our excellent and hard-working lawyers, and I will always champion our profession and lawyers of all stripes, whichever side they represent, but sadly from time to time there are those who take advantage of their position and abuse the court process. In those instances, to pretend that lawyers are somehow beyond criticism is not only naive, but does the public a great disservice.
I listened to that answer, but does the Attorney General agree that she has to speak out and say that she does not condone these attacks? Will she explain what steps she has taken to address the matter with Cabinet members? Can she give me and the House assurances that these attacks, which are corrosive and undermining the legal profession, will cease immediately?
I am proud of the profession, and in my role as head of the Bar, I will not hesitate to champion the interests of our lawyers. Indeed, given that it is Pro Bono Week, I take this opportunity to thank the thousands of lawyers out there who regularly give their time and their services free of charge on a pro bono basis, helping some of the most vulnerable in our society. I was pleased earlier this year to acknowledge the winners of the LawWorks and Attorney General’s student pro bono awards, and I know that the Solicitor General himself has recently met with members of the community. That is a real mark of a compassionate profession.
At the Conservative party conference, the Prime Minister said he would prevent the whole criminal justice system being hamstrung by what the Home Secretary would doubtlessly like to call lefty human rights lawyers and other do-gooders. On 9 October, the chair of the Bar wrote a letter to the Prime Minister, copied to the Attorney General, asking the Prime Minister to withdraw those comments. Will she at least see that the chair of the Bar gets a reply to that letter sent a month ago? Those comments are leading to attacks—not just verbal, but often physical—on lawyers.
Lawyers play a vital role in our justice system and in upholding our democratic society. However, I find the words of the Lord Chief Justice very useful. He recently took the opportunity in the Court of Appeal to make the general point that
“it is a matter of regret that a minority of lawyers have lent their professional weight and support to vexatious representations and abusive late legal challenges.”
I find his words prescient and very relevant to this debate. As a friend and ally of the profession, I know the vast majority of our profession uphold the highest standards, but we cannot deny that there is a minority who do not.
I welcome the tone of the Attorney General’s remarks. Does she recognise that it lies in the hands of parliamentarians and legislators to correct faults in the system that are abused? At the same time, will she confirm that the Government are firmly committed to the robustness and public value of an independent legal profession and judiciary and to enhancing that by ramping up the work that we do in public legal education, so that people are generally more aware and better informed of the valuable work that the profession and the judiciary do for us all?
My hon. Friend and I are in total agreement on this. I know that during his years of practice at the Bar, he will have been part of a profession that upheld the highest standards. Generally, the profession is very well policed. We have a robust code of conduct. We have regulatory authorities that call out and discipline those lawyers who fall short of the standards. He is absolutely right that we need an independent and robust profession as part of a fair society, and his role has been critical, not only in public legal education but as a champion for justice as Chairman of the Justice Committee. As he was Master of the Bench of Middle Temple at my own Inn, I can definitely vouch for his overall fabulousness.
Lawyers, like all of us, have the right to work without fear or intimidation. Early in the pandemic, lawyers were rightly identified by this Government as key workers, yet the language used by the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister was not only wrong, it was reckless and does a huge disservice to an entire profession. I am certainly proud of the legal profession. The Attorney General says that she is too, so will she today condemn the references to criminal defence lawyers and immigration lawyers as “activists” and “do-gooders”?
Yes, I know that the hon. Lady had an esteemed career as a lawyer, and we share a common interest in upholding the position of lawyers in our society. Any violence—I must make this clear—is utterly deplorable against any lawyer or anyone going about their work. But we have to be clear that, more broadly, there are lawyers who have gone on the record to make it clear that they are pursuing politics through the courts. There are judges who have felt compelled in their decisions to remind counsel that judicial review is not and should not be regarded as politics by another means. Everyone in the profession needs to take heed of those observations in making their professional decisions.
I think many in the legal profession will be horrified by the approach that the Attorney General is taking today. She must, like the Lord Chancellor, accept that the comments from the Home Office and the Prime Minister went way beyond legitimate criticism, devaluing the values of lawyers and questioning their motivation. Will she join the criticism of the remarks that were made? Will she also investigate whether sources in the Government and Whitehall have been responsible for identifying individual law firms and lawyers when anonymously briefing newspapers about activities that the Home Secretary and No. 10 are angered by?
The hon. Gentleman refers to law firms and, by implication, the incident, which was very serious and, as I say, deplorable. It is not something to trivialise or politicise, and we should be careful not to draw conclusions about any incident that is under investigation. I know that he specialised in immigration law. I defended the Home Office for many years in the same field of law. We know that the vast majority of lawyers who specialise in immigration law are upholding the highest standards, are devoted to their clients and are working to secure justice. But we only have to look at the records of the Bar Standards Board or the Solicitors Regulation Authority to see that there are those who fall short of those high standards, and it is right that action should be taken to stop that sub-optimal delivery of service.
Serious Fraud Office: Proceeds of Crime
In 2019-20, the Serious Fraud Office secured more than £13 million in new financial orders against criminals it investigated, with payments received against previous orders totalling more than £7 million. That strong performance has continued this year. In July, the SFO secured confiscation orders totalling £5.45 million against former Afren employees, and in September, the SFO used for the first time a listed asset recovery order to recover £500,000-worth of jewellery in a long-running mortgage fraud case.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question. While covid-19 has obviously had an impact on the court system and caused some delays in obtaining and enforcing court orders, the SFO has continued to progress its proceeds of crime work, successfully obtaining confiscation orders and using new asset recovery powers to recover money in a long-running fraud case. Its ability to maintain operational effectiveness in the face of the challenges posed by covid-19 was recognised in the report by the inspectorate on the SFO’s response to the pandemic.
Rape and Sexual Assault: Prosecutions and Conviction Rates
We and the Crown Prosecution Service are working tirelessly with criminal justice partners to improve the handling of these sensitive cases. Over the last four quarters, we have seen the charging and conviction rates in rape cases continue to increase. This year, the CPS published its own rape strategy, updated rape legal guidance and training, is actively engaging in the Government rape review and will shortly be publishing a joint action plan on rape with the police.
The Solicitor General will know that rape prosecutions in England and Wales are now at the lowest ever levels. I suspect he shares the lack of surprise I felt when I learned that just one in seven rape survivors will ever see the justice system deliver justice for them. Can he confirm when the end-to-end rape review will be published by his Government?
I am very grateful for the hon. Member’s question because it highlights what we know and accept around the House is an important issue. Driving up rape prosecutions continues to be a major focus for the Attorney General’s Office and the Crown Prosecution Service, as work progresses to reverse this negative trend. We have actually seen the proportion of suspects charged with rape slowly increasing and we have also seen a continued increase in the volume of suspects charged, but I accept the thrust of her point, which is that there is more work to do. More work is being done, and as soon as these reports are ready, they will be published.
I welcome the recent announcements from the CPS and the guidance it has published to improve rape prosecution rates, particularly in relation to modern dating apps and selfies. However, the rape review published by the Victims’ Commissioner revealed that a large number of women are still reluctant to report rape in the first instance, because of an enduring concern that they will not be believed by the police when they do so. Can my right hon. and learned Friend confirm what steps he is taking to ensure that the support and the structures exist so that women who come forward can have confidence that there is a reasonable prospect of securing a conviction?
The Crown Prosecution Service and the Government are determined to restore faith and build more faith in the criminal justice system, and to give victims of rape—this horrific offence—the confidence that everything will be done to bring offenders to justice. That is why the Government are reviewing the end-to-end response to this awful crime, in consultation with survivors groups as well as the Victims’ Commissioner, while recruiting more police and putting more money into the Crown Prosecution Service. This is a priority: it is a priority for me and for the Attorney General, for the Crown Prosecution Service and for this Government. I thank my hon. Friend for her support in this matter.
I have listened to what the Solicitor General has had to say, but the reality is that rape prosecutions are at their lowest level on record, and according to the Victims’ Commissioner, only one in seven rape victims has faith in the justice system. Last week, we discovered that an under-resourced CPS is not even getting the basics right, with almost half of letters to victims lacking empathy. It is clear that this Government are letting down victims of rape on every front. I have heard about the consultations and the reviews, but what urgent action are the Government taking to reverse this trend and ensure that victims have faith in the criminal justice system when they need it the most?
It is very important that victims have faith, and we ask everyone involved in the criminal justice system to support that system in giving victims faith. Dealing with this awful crime is a high priority for the Crown Prosecution Service, and for the Government, and driving up rape prosecutions continues to be a major focus. The overall trend over the past quarter shows that the volume and proportion of suspects charged is slowly increasing, but I accept that there is more work to do in this complex and multifaceted area. We are working with a number of bodies, including the police and the Crown Prosecution Service, to facilitate improvements, so that people can, and should, have the fullest confidence in our criminal justice system.
It has been a year and a half since the publication of the Gillen review into serious sexual offences and how they are prosecuted through the courts in Northern Ireland, and the Solicitor General’s office has taken a considerable interest in that, until the re-establishment of devolved institutions in Northern Ireland. It will now be another year before legislative changes are tabled in the Northern Ireland Assembly to deal with that review, which quite frankly is not acceptable. What can be done in this place to expedite those necessary changes and ensure that victims get fairness and equal British justice across all the United Kingdom?
As usual, the hon. Gentleman stands up for the people of Northern Ireland, and he is right to focus on that issue. I will make inquiries with the Northern Ireland Office and see how that matter is progressing, but he will acknowledge that there are no doubt legislative pressures, and that these things do take time. I assure him, however, that every effort will be made to liaise, and where possible to assist, in the furtherance of this matter.
Hate Crime Sentences
I recognise the devastating impact that hate crimes have on victims and communities, and the CPS is committed to bringing offenders to justice. Training for prosecutors draws on input from key community groups, helping to improve the prosecution response to hate crime. In the 12 months to the end of June this year, the proportion of convictions for hate crime with a recorded sentence uplift increased to 78.4%, which is the highest rate yet.
Having heard directly from victims of hate crime in the west midlands, during a virtual session hosted by our candidate for police and crime commissioner, Jay Singh-Sohal, it is obvious that we need to do more to support victims of that appalling type of crime, through all stages of the judicial process. Will my right hon. and learned Friend commit to working with the CPS, and police across the country, to ensure that hate crime victims feel able to come forward and report incidents in the first place?
I thank my hon. Friend for her work with the Holocaust Educational Trust and on tackling antisemitism. I visited the CPS East of England yesterday, and heard about its great work on tackling hate crime. The CPS works closely around the country with members of the community, to ensure that the approach to hate crime prosecutions is sensitive and provides sufficient support to victims. For example, the CPS recently met key groups that represent the Jewish community, including the Community Security Trust, to discuss work on antisemitism. It also recently delivered a webinar on its approach to hate crime to an audience invited by the Chinese Welfare Trust and the Covid-19 anti-racism group, both of which support the Chinese and south-east Asian communities.
International Law: Government Compliance
I work frequently with Departments on legislation, including on issues that relate to compliance with international law. The UK is committed to the rules-based international system. We were the architects of the post-war international legal order, including the UN Charter, NATO, and the European convention on human rights—a history of which I am very proud. The principle of discharging our treaty obligations in good faith is, and will remain, the key principle in forming the UK’s approach to international relations.
The United Kingdom Internal Market Bill breaks international law by reneging on the EU withdrawal agreement. The Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill contravenes the right to life and the prohibition of torture under international conventions. The Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill means the UK will be unable to prosecute war crimes after five years, so we will end up at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The Attorney General’s job is to ensure that we deliver the rule of law nationally and internationally. She has failed in her duty. Will she now resign?
The hon. Gentleman raises some interesting points, but it seems that he has missed the fundamental principle underlying our constitution and the UK’s relationship with international law. It is not right to say that our constitution requires a blind and automatic adherence to international law. Domestic law is on a different plane to international law. It is entirely proper and constitutional, and in line with the principle of parliamentary sovereignty, that the Queen in Parliament may legislate in a manner inconsistent with international law. That is an age-old principle underpinning our constitution.